New bill would give blind students equal access to textbooks

A bill introduced into both the House and the Senate April 24 promises to improve access to textbooks dramatically for students who are blind or have other disabilities that impair their use of printed material.

If the legislation is enacted, states and local school districts that receive federal funding would have two years to make sure visually impaired students can access all educational materials at the same time as their peers.

Educators would have help from textbook publishers, who would be required to submit electronic files of all textbooks according to a universal standard, making it easier for schools to convert instructional materials into accessible formats.

“Far too often, blind and visually impaired students must wait months while their local school districts convert their textbooks into Braille—and at the same time school districts face exorbitant costs for these conversions,” said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., who serves as chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Children and Families.

A Connecticut high school student said she spent hours last week scanning her textbook so she could access it.

“A lot of our books are available in tape [format], and tapes are useful and everything, but … my history book that I needed this week was totally and completely blank,” said Jessie Kirchner, a junior at Guilford High School in Connecticut, a visually impaired student who spoke at a press conference announcing the legislation.

The bill, dubbed the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act of 2002 (H.R. 4582 and S. 2246), would create an efficient system for acquiring and distributing instructional materials in a variety of specialized formats, including Braille, synthesized speech, digital text, digital audio, and large print.

To do this, one standard electronic format for converting school textbooks into Braille for visually impaired students would be established.

“Twenty-six states presently require publishers to provide a copy of these textbooks in electronic format,” Dodd said. However, there is no standard in practice to regulate this process, so schools have been getting textbooks in a variety of file formats.

In addition to adopting a standardized, national electronic file format, the bill would set aside $1 million to create a central depository, or clearinghouse, called the National Instructional Materials Access Center for easier and faster access to these materials.

The bill “makes it easier for publishers to know where to send the files, and it makes it easy for schools to know where to go to get these files,” said Paul Schroeder, vice president for government relations at the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB).

Textbook publishers would have to provide schools with a written agreement that says they agree to submit an electronic format of the book within 30 days to the center.

“As more and more books go into the center, it will become an automatic process for any new book that gets published,” Schroeder said.

The legislation is cosponsored by Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss.; Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky.; Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis.; and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. It is also supported by the National Federation of the Blind and the Association of American Publishers (AAP).

“We are very committed to our work to ensure that all students, including those who are blind or print-disabled, have access to textbooks and materials that they need and can use,” said former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder, president and chief executive of AAP.

This national electronic file format and depository would have far-reaching benefits, said Carl R. Augusto, president and chief executive of AFB: “With the [Instructional Materials Accessibility Act], we are witnessing the start of something truly ground-breaking.”

In addition to the $1 million to develop the center, $5 million would be available for the first few years to help states pay for the technology needed to make use of the electronic files.

Links:

Instructional Materials Accessibility Act of 2002
http://www.afb.org/info_document_view.asp?DocumentID=1705

American Foundation for the Blind
http://www.afb.org

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.
http://dodd.senate.gov

Association of American Publishers
http://www.publishers.org

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FCC ruling denies eRate funds for North Dakota schools

A rules change that led an estimated 200 eRate applicants—including the entire state of North Dakota—to submit part of their 2001-2002 applications after the deadline is not reason enough to grant a waiver, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said April 24. The agency’s ruling means these applicants won’t get a penny from the program this year.

“Sixty-three percent of our costs were to be reimbursed through the eRate,” said Curtis Wolfe, chief information officer for the state of North Dakota. “We are going to have to come up with $1.3 million to offset the cost.”

The decision affects hundreds of schools that were denied millions of dollars in eRate funding for the current program year because they failed to submit their signature page before the deadline.

A change in the program’s rules was the reason these forms were late. Starting with the 2001-2002 funding year, applicants who filed their FCC Forms 471 electronically also had to mail two documents—an Item 21 Description of Services Form and a Block 6 Certification Form—completed and signed by the deadline, which was Jan. 18 of last year.

In previous years, these documents could be received after the deadline, but in the 2001 program year the rules changed “to protect applicants from excessive mail delays.”

North Dakota officials requested a waiver from the FCC, the government agency that oversees the eRate program. The state argued that the instructions about the changed deadline were unclear.

The FCC disagreed, noting that the Schools and Libraries Divison (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co.—the group that administers the eRate—posted the new rules on several areas of its web site, mailed a letter to 61,000 applicants from previous funding years, and issued a press release to more than 100 news rooms.

“It is incumbent upon applicants to anticipate unexpected, yet reasonably foreseeable circumstances,” FCC officials stated in their ruling. They added that North Dakota, considering the size of its application, should have filed early to meet the deadline.

North Dakota had filed a statewide application for 202 of its 500 schools. Some school districts were going to file separately, but they were told to file with the state, Wolfe said.

North Dakota filed its Form 471 electronically on Jan. 18, 2001, but the other documents were postmarked Feb. 9, 2001.

“Thirty-five thousand or so” applicants sent in their signature pages on time and had no problem with the notification, SLD spokesman Mel Blackwell said. He estimated that about 200 applicants failed to send in these pages on time.

“I’ve very seldom seen [FCC officials] waive a rule. When they do, it’s usually when we’ve made an error or when there’s a policy problem,” Blackwell said.

FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps publicly disagreed with his agency’s decision to not grant a waiver.

“I am troubled when so many deserving schools are denied funding, particularly as in this case, when the rules were changed and are being applied for the first time,” Copps said in a statement. “Given these facts, I would have supported granting a one-time waiver to provide funding to these schools and libraries.”

Wolfe said the FCC’s decision has severe consequences for his rural state, where most schools only have dial-up connections to the internet.

“If anyone has a legitimate case for a waiver, it’s us,” he said. “If [we] were a single school district, it would not be that big a deal.”

The state had planned to upgrade all of its high schools to T1 lines, so they could access video and distance education via the internet. Now, they will have to wait until next year.

“We’ve already submitted [an application for the 2002-2003 program year], and we think we are going to be okay for that. We certainly didn’t want to make the same mistake twice,” Wolfe said.

In addition to North Dakota, several school districts in Puerto Rico also were denied eRate funds for the same reason.

Links:

FCC’s Order Addressing North Dakota’s Request for Review
http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DA-02-956A1.pdf

North Dakota Information Technology Department
http://www.state.nd.us

Schools and Libraries Division
http://www.sl.universalservice.org

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Here’s an apple for the “Professional Teachers”

Canter & Associates, a leading provider of professional development programs for teachers, recently launched ProfessionalTeacher.com, a web site designed to support the professional development efforts of K-12 classroom teachers and simplify the license renewal process. Currently 45 states require teachers to renew or maintain a teaching license or certificate. A significant section of the newly reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act concentrates on supporting teacher quality, including assisting teachers in meeting certification, licensing, and other requirements. For the first time, states will be required to track certified as well as uncertified teachers. “ProfessionalTeacher.com will provide a one-stop solution to help teachers better understand state guidelines in order to create their own personal professional development plan,” said Kathy Winberry, senior vice president and general manager of Canter & Associates. “Our team of educators has done much of the legwork to bring the most current and relevant recertification information right to the teacher’s own desktop computer.” Teachers can use this online resource to locate state-specific renewal forms, get information and guidelines on creating individualized professional development plans, and access links to professional development courses and programs. The site’s Career Center also provides tips on writing a winning resume and cover letter, job search assistance, job descriptions, salary comparisons, and other services for educators.

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New eBook forum leader targets schools

The new head of an electronic publishing trade group has vowed to promote the growth of eBooks in schools.

Nicholas Bogaty, founder of the online intellectual property marketplace rightsworld.com, was tapped to head the Open eBook Forum earlier this month. Bogaty becomes the third executive director in the four-year history of the group, which aims to establish common specifications for electronic publishing.

By bringing aboard an industry pioneer as its new leader, the forum also intends to jump-start a movement that has been slow to catch on so far among consumers.

Part of the problem, Bogaty said, has been a perception that eBook reader devices are not compatible with a wide range of text formats—and thus are inaccessible to the average reader. “We want to tell the world that eBooks are not complicated, that they are actually geared toward everyone,” he said.

One step Bogaty is taking to address this problem is the enhancement of the Open eBook Publication Structure (OEBPS), the group’s XML-based specification for eBook content and presentation. Bogaty and his team are working on OEBPS version 2.0, slated for release this summer.

Like its predecessor, OEBPS 2.0 will be nonproprietary and based on open specifications, but the newer version will offer improved support for content-owner control over presentation, as well as major enhancements in areas such as navigation, linking, and metadata.

“[Four] years ago, when the idea of eBooks was first introduced to the publishing industry, technology providers were told to develop one standard format,” Bogaty said. “OEBPS—and especially version 2.0—is a perfect example of this kind of standard. It ensures fidelity, accuracy, accessibility, and presentation of electronic content over various eBook platforms.”

Like the current version of OEPBS, 2.0 will be available for downloading from the Open eBook Forum’s web site at no cost.

Bogaty also is focused on bringing eBooks to K-12 education. “The growth of eBooks in school libraries is a big aspect our members want to pursue,” he said, citing benefits such as their lower cost, greater accessibility, and the searchability of electronic texts.

Although eBooks are used in a few school districts now—Houston’s Aldine Independent School District, for example, opened an eBook library with 375 titles last spring—schools overall have been slow to embrace the technology.

Julie Walker, executive director of the American Association of School Librarians, agrees with Bogarty that eBooks hold promise for schools. But Walker doubts whether they will be accepted universally anytime soon.

“The penetration of eBooks has not been great [so far], because most school systems approach alternative formats very cautiously,” Walker said. School districts already grappling with tight budgets are wary of investing in unproven technology, she said, adding, “The jury is still out on this one.”

To alleviate such budgetary concerns, the Open eBook Forum is working with literacy programs such as Chrysler’s Operation Outreach USA to offer free eBooks to the underprivileged. Operation Outreach USA has a collection of 40 eBooks available to participating schools, which include Washington District Elementary in Colonial Heights, Va.

According to Washington District principal Paula Suggs, the school’s newly-launched eLibrary has received glowing praise from students and teachers alike.

“Our experience with eBooks has been very, very good,” said Suggs. “We can only allow our students to check out one [copy of a traditional] book at a time, but they can look at multiple [copies of] eBooks.”

Suggs did say she’d like to see more effort from publishers to expand the number of works they make available electronically, particularly textbooks. It’s a concern others share as well, and one Bogaty is working to address.

His first step as executive director of the forum was to move the group’s headquarters from Boulder, Colo., to New York City, establishing a vital presence in the epicenter of the major publishing companies.

“By being in the same city as our clients, we can establish closer relationships in order to standardize [eBook formats] and increase interest in the electronic book industry,” Bogaty said. “We can also better emphasize the benefits of this technology.”

The group also is negotiating business relationships with such education-oriented companies as McGraw-Hill, NetLibrary, and OverDrive, as well as individual schools.

By forming special-interest groups staffed by executives from technology providers and publishing houses, the forum seeks to address the concerns of both publishers—the security of electronic texts, for example—and consumers.

“We have the ability to place representatives from Microsoft, Palm, and Adobe in the same room as those from Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, and AOL Time Warner,” Bogaty said. “Problems or concerns can be tackled head on and expeditiously.”

Since its move to New York, the group’s focus has been on promoting new markets, such as education. Bogaty cited the upcoming “Open an eBook … Discover New Worlds of Reading” campaign, which launches in May, as the first major thrust toward promoting eBooks in schools.

Representatives from Microsoft, IBM, and Nokia will join Random House, Scholastic, and Harper Collins, among other publishers, to promote the benefits of eBook technologies and products. Programs will include a free eBookstore for young readers, as well as ongoing initiatives by Open eBook Forum members.

“The support of these industry leaders will undoubtedly garner the interest we’re looking for,” said Bogaty, who added that when it comes to gaining momentum for electronic publishing, “it’s a matter of tenacity—this is a growing trend and we need to continue to coax it along.”

Links:

Open eBook Forum
http://www.openebook.org

American Association of School Librarians
http://www.ala.org/aasl

Operation Outreach USA
http://www.oousa.org

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FTC cracks down on kids’ online privacy violations

Sending a clear message that it intends to enforce a law aimed at protecting children’s privacy online, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has fined one toy manufacturer because it failed to verify that children had their parents’ permission before submitting their ages, names, and addresses to the company’s web site.

The Ohio Art Co., which makes Etch-A-Sketch, settled the fine by paying $35,000 and agreeing to discard all personal information improperly collected from children over the past two years, the FTC said April 22.

The agency also sent warning letters for less severe violations to operators of 50 children’s sites that were not in compliance with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The FTC learned of the violations from a survey of 144 web sites completed last year.

The law requires commercial web sites to carry privacy-policy statements, get “verifiable parental consent” before soliciting information from children, and provide an opportunity for parents to delete information collected from their children.

The FTC also permits teachers to act on behalf of the parent in giving consent, provided the school’s policy allows students to give out personal information.

Ohio Art’s online “Etch-A-Sketch Birthday Club” collected names, ages, and addresses of 2,500 children who visited the web site since April 2000, said a complaint filed April 19 in U.S. District Court in Toledo.

The site instructed young visitors to “get your parent or guardian’s permission first” but had no way to verify that they did, the complaint said.

Ohio Art said it was correcting the problem and that the information was kept within the company.

“The Ohio Art Co. recognizes its obligation to its customers, community, and online visitors to adhere to the highest standards of decency, fairness, and integrity in all its operations,” a statement released by the company said.

“I think what’s going on is that some sites don’t understand the rules, and some just don’t care and think they aren’t going to get caught. It’s nice to see the FTC put some heat on,” said Joe Turow, author and Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

Last April, Turow released a study entitled “Privacy Policies on Children’s Web Sites: Do They Play By the Rules?” The study found almost half of the 162 children’s web sites researchers reviewed didn’t comply with COPPA.

Kathryn Montgomery, president and co-founder of the Center for Media Education, said enforcing COPPA will require constant monitoring by the FTC.

“It’s very, very important that the FTC follow through with these actions,” Montgomery said. “If the FTC didn’t take action, the industry would do whatever it wanted.”

Parry Aftab, known as the “kids’ internet lawyer” for her advocacy of children’s online safety, said she was “thrilled” that the FTC has taken steps to crack down on COPPA violations. Aftab charges children’s web site owners $10,000 a piece to help them comply with the law.

“Companies like the makers of Etch-A-Sketch have in-house lawyers who don’t know about the law,” Aftab said. However, the fine the FTC imposes is nothing compared to tarnishing the company’s reputation.

“It’s not the fine—that’s nothing; but the bad publicity is everything,” Aftab said. If word gets out that a site like Etch-A-Sketch wasn’t protecting children’s online privacy, it could lead to the demise of the web site quickly, she said.

Links:

Ohio Art Co.
http://www.world-of-toys.com

Etch-A-Sketch
http://www.etch-a-sketch.com

Federal Trade Commission’s Kidz Privacy web site
http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/kidzprivacy/index.html

Center for Media Education
http://www.cme.org

Parry Aftab
http://www.aftab.com

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Teacher-created video portrays students’ skills for parents

A growing number of schools are using digital video as a powerful tool to convey to parents how their children are performing in the classroom. The use of dynamic video can communicate a student’s abilities far more effectively than paper-based progress reports, proponents of the trend say.

Elementary school teachers in Barrington, R.I., for instance, have been showing parents videos of their children reading, to help parents truly understand what they mean during parent-teacher conferences.

Concepts such as reading ability and social interaction are difficult to illustrate verbally. So teachers at Primrose Hill School have begun recording students reading, which enables the teacher to show parents exactly what they mean by abstract terms such as “comprehension” and “word-attack.”

“Sometimes at a parent conference, a parent can get lost in the jargon,” said Principal Elizabeth Durfee. If a teacher can describe a child’s abilities while the child’s parent is watching on video, the parent can understand what the teacher is saying more clearly, she said.

Traditionally, the school’s teachers have assembled paper portfolios of student work to present to parents during conferences to explain their children’s progress.

Now, four teachers—in grades one through three—create web-based digital portfolios for each student that highlight each student’s abilities. Each portfolio features math and writing samples, as well as video clips of the child reading and interacting socially.

“It’s been so well received by our parents. They are just so fascinated by seeing their child in action,” Durfee said. “It’s clarified information, and it’s brought them much closer to being in the classroom.”

Parent volunteers are essential in helping teachers put their portfolios together, said Elizabeth Kruse, a third-grade teacher at the school.

A parent volunteer makes a video record of the students while the teacher gives the lesson. Later, the teacher looks at the video and chooses clips that demonstrate skills or problems the teacher wants to address with the parent.

Sorting through video taken of an entire classroom to pick out clips that are most relevant for each student sounds like a lot of work, but teachers say preparing in advance is far more helpful.

“I feel much more organized about the process. It’s less stressful,” Kruse said. “I’ve never been able to do 17 conferences in a day, but now I can.”

Parent volunteers also scan all the math and writing samples for each portfolio. Having everything digital, on one medium, saves teachers from having to switch back and forth between digital and paper examples during the conference.

“It makes my life easier in a lot of ways,” Kruse said. When it’s time for the interview, teachers simply take parents through their child’s portfolio.

Durfee said the video segments help parents see their child differently. The teacher can point out a child’s strengths, such as leadership, collaboration, and responsibility in a group setting.

“These are all intangibles. You can’t test for them, but they are very important for the way a classroom operates,” Durfee said.

The technology also confirms a teacher’s assessment of a student who is behaving poorly, because the video record speaks for itself..

The idea of adding video to student portfolios at the Primrose Hill School came from David Niguidula, a local parent who has been working on the concept of digital portfolios for schools for the past 10 years.

“It’s no longer a conversation in the abstract,” he said. “The parent and teacher can actually have a conversation around what the child is doing. A parent and teacher can look at and discuss what they see on a video.”

The portfolios are just a series of web pages, said Niguidula, whose company—Ideas Consulting—has introduced electronic portfolio programs in schools throughout the country, including in Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Volunteers use the school’s digital video camera to record the students. Then, using the camera’s own software, the video is downloaded to a computer, from which it is uploaded to a web page.

“It’s very off-the-shelf technology,” Niguidula said.

Web-based digital portfolios make it possible for teachers to hold parent conferences virtually, although Primrose Hill School isn’t doing this yet. “We have some parents [who] can’t always come in,” Durfee said.

Parents noticed a distinct difference in their children’s abilities when they saw video taken in April compared to video from last October, Durfee said, adding, “It’s very exciting for parents to see that difference.”

Links:

Primrose Hill School
http://barrington.k12.ri.us/primrose

Ideas Consulting: Digital Portfolios
http://www.ideasconsulting.com/dp_main.htm

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Study: Kids’ web sites often confusing for students

Children don’t have the patience to navigate the complex designs of many of the web sites targeted to their age group, according to a study released April 15 that observed how kids surf the internet. They also can’t distinguish between advertising and actual content, the study found, even when the ads are clearly marked.

Researchers from the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) had 55 children in grades one through five look at a wide range of web sites, including Amazon.com, Yahoo!, Sports Illustrated for Kids, Sesame Street, and Willy Wonka.

In total, the children browsed 24 web sites designed for children and three mainstream web sites designed for adult users. Researchers found that children who browse poorly designed web sites are just as likely as adults to get frustrated and give up, dispelling the popular notion that kids quickly master anything on a computer.

“Our study convinced us that most web sites for children are built upon pure folklore about how kids supposedly behave,” said Jakob Nielsen, NNG’s internet usability expert. “While it’s true—as one would assume—that kids love whiz-bang animation and sound effects, even these things won’t hold their attention if they come upon something too difficult to figure out, or they get lost on a web site. Children are quick to close the window and find something else to do.”

In their report, called “Usability of Web Sites for Children: 70 Design Guidelines,” the researchers outlined how children experience the web and what organizations can do to improve their web sites for kids.

Although the participants were very young, the researchers found children had greatest success surfing the web sites intended for adults. The report attributes this finding to the commitment that Amazon.com and Yahoo! have to “utter simplicity and compliance with web design conventions.”

If a web page crashes or isn’t immediately catchy, children look for something else to do, the report found. Other usability problems identified in the report include inconsistent navigation, fancy wording, not being able to tell where to click, and too much text for new readers.

Young web-surfers are especially sensitive to whether the content suits their age level, the report said. One six-year-old participant reportedly said, “This web site is for babies … you can tell because of the cartoons and trains.”

Children rarely scrolled down, preferring to interact with content “above the fold.” They particularly liked animation and sound effects, searching the screen for places to click and for pictures and maps to help them navigate the site. They also preferred content that is funny, entertaining, and colorful.

Children frequently clicked on advertisements, usually because they couldn’t distinguish between advertising and the site’s content. This finding reinforces the need for parents and educators to explain internet advertising to children and how they can recognize ads.

“Many people already help their children understand and cope with television commercials, but such educational efforts overlook web ads—possibly because most adults would never dream of clicking them,” the report said.

On a more positive note, the study found that children had been taught about privacy and had been warned not to divulge personal information online—”which I think is good news,” Nielsen told the New York Times, “because it shows that it’s possible to educate children about the internet.”

Links:

Nielsen Norman Group
http://www.nngroup.com

“Usability of Web Sites for Children: 70 Design Guidelines”
http://www.nngroup.com/reports/kids

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‘Spyware’ catches school tech directors by surprise

Security researcher Steve Gibson was testing intrusion-detection software on his computer when it suddenly warned him: A program he knew nothing about was trying to send data out to the internet.

Gibson thought he was familiar with all the programs on his computer. He was wrong. An uninvited guest had hitched a ride on another application he had installed, and it was there to retrieve and display ads.

“This thing was in my computer using the internet behind my back,” said Gibson, founder of Gibson Research Corp. in Laguna Hills, Calif. “It meant my computer was no longer my own.”

Two years later, a practice Gibson termed “frightening” has only grown more common. Every week, hundreds of thousands of people download free software—and with it, third-party tools that can do strange, unexpected things to their computers. And although many of the offending companies claim they respect privacy and are not trying to deceive, mistakes happen.

That was the case for about a week earlier this month, when a free application called WeatherBug from Maryland-based AWS Inc. gave some users a promotional tool from Ebates that pitches rebates while they visit participating sites.

WeatherBug provides users with real-time weather data for their zip code when downloaded to a desktop computer. AWS also markets the application as a school fund-raising project; by promoting it within the community, schools can earn up to $2,000 if 2,000 or more members of the community download WeatherBug to their computers.

AWS stopped offering Ebates pending an internal review after being contacted by the Associated Press.

“It was an honest mistake,” said Andy Jedynak, AWS’s vice president of business development. “We have a very strict policy of making sure that all of our users understand exactly what’s happening.”

Jedynak stressed—and eSchool News has confirmed—that WeatherBug is not spyware. “This incident affected less than one tenth of one percent of our nearly 10 million WeatherBug users. It has never been our policy to install software on consumers’ computers without their permission, and we take great pains to give consumers choice and freedom of privacy,” said Jedynak. Mikko Hypponen, a security expert at F-Secure Corp. in Finland, considers “spyware” to be software that typically claims to send only anonymous data but which causes web addresses to be transmitted that sometimes contain usernames and passwords. Kyle Hutson, director of technology for Rock Creek Schools in Kansas, told eSchool News that spyware is a problem he constantly encounters in his school district.

“Currently, we just wait until somebody complains and then remove [the software], but if I were to inspect our labs now, well over half would have something of this sort installed,” Hutson said. Not only are these programs installed without permission, but they make computers sluggish, he added.

Gibson worries that these programs increase security and privacy risks.

Though many of them do no more than subject users to ads, more sophisticated applets send information about surfing habits—so an ad for allergy medication might pop up while someone checks the weather. Other programs change internet settings or the appearance of web pages.

“Publishers are starting to look for new revenue streams, and this is one really easy way,” said Kelly Green, director of the software distribution site Download.com.

As an indication of what a nuisance many users consider such tools, software that finds and removes them ranks eighth on Download.com.

Many companies have gotten better at telling users about these tag-alongs and explaining how they help keep the core products free, but critics say that’s not always enough.

“A lot of people out there will just click ‘yes’ and not bother to read [the pop-up warning box],” said Richard M. Smith, former chief technology officer for the Privacy Foundation.

In some cases, third-party software is installed unless users notice and uncheck a box, or pay a fee. In a few cases, there’s no option but to accept.

Though Smith believes few, if any, of these tools are truly malicious, he worries hackers might exploit their weaknesses. He also notes that some can cause computers to crash.

Phil Morle, director of technology at Sharman Networks, says tools bundled with its KaZaA file-sharing application, which is popular with online music-swappers, are tested for privacy and security and are easy to remove.

Since February, Brilliant Digital Entertainment has been distributing software with KaZaA designed to build a separate network for sharing files, storage capacity, and processing power.

Users can remove the Brilliant software—but only after KaZaA installs it.

Though the arrangement appears in licensing agreements that KaZaA users must accept beforehand, Brilliant’s chief executive, Kevin Bermeister, admits the software caught some by surprise.

He said the company will seek users’ permission before activating the network in about a month.

A tool for speeding downloads, Go!Zilla, carries TopText iLookup, which highlights words on regular web pages and links them to sponsors and other sites. Go!Zilla also offers the WeatherBug weather tracker, which in turn sometimes comes with advertising tools of its own.

KaZaA and fellow file-sharing application BearShare are bundled with New.net, which lets computers recognize nonstandard domain names, such as “.school.”

David Hernand, chief executive of New.net, said the partnerships his company forges are crucial for getting a critical mass of users. Without enough computers recognizing the domain names, people won’t want to buy them, he said.

Even if these programs are relatively innocuous, security researcher Gibson warns, the fact that one can slip by means something more malicious can as well.

“The technology is under the covers,” he said. “Nobody knows what’s being loaded any more.”

Links:

AWS WeatherBug
http://www.weatherbug.com/schools

F-Secure Corp.
http://www.F-Secure.com

Privacy Foundation
http://www.privacyfoundation.org

Gibson Research Corp.
http://grc.com/default.htm

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For Earth Day – Kids and Rare Species Connect Online

A new environmental education and technology program, “Raptors in the City”, offers an in-depth study of the life-cycle of the peregrine falcon, with an intimate view into falcon family life at the nest site. “Raptors in the City” is in its first year of operation in a variety of classrooms, after school settings, and mentoring programs across the nation, as well as being used by bird watchers at home. The program is rich in educational content, based on national science and technology standards, and has many cross-curricular applications. “Raptors in the City” is designed for ease of use, even for computer-challenged teachers, parents and mentors. The children are assigned tasks to research, both on the Internet and in books, and they earn rewards for their work. The site also teaches the lesson of endangered species from the positive perspective that species can be helped and saved. It also teaches a gamut of environmental, biological, and technological lessons, as well as research skills. The ultimate aim of the program is to encourage children to care about the future of all species.

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‘Intelligent’ tutor aids science students online

High school students soon will be able to get help with their chemistry and physics homework from a new online tutor that uses artificial-intelligence technology.

Starting this fall, Holt, Rinehart and Winston (HRW) will offer a subscription to the Quantum Intelligent Tutor with the purchase of its textbooks. The Quantum Intelligent Tutor, developed by Quantum Simulations Inc., is not specific to one textbook publisher, but through HRW, an intelligent, computer-based science tutor will be available to students and teachers for the first time, according to the company.

“Our market research shows that tutorial programs are the No. 1 supplement requested by teachers,” said Ellen M. Standafer, vice president of science product development at HRW, which is part of the Harcourt Education Group.

Traditionally a textbook publisher, HRW will sell the online tutor along with online versions of its textbooks this fall, so the company can offer its customers “a complete, integrated, multimedia learning experience for teachers and students.”

“Our intention is to continually add value to our online material that customers would be willing to pay for,” said HRW spokesman John Lawyer. With the purchase of a print or online textbook, HRW also will recommend that schools purchase the online tutoring service.

The company’s strategic approach to selling eLearning curricula and services reflects a growing trend among traditional textbook publishers, said Peter Grunwald, president of Grunwald Associates, an educational technology research and consulting firm. But for internet-based educational content and services to be successful, publishers need to teach their customers that the internet has content worth paying for.

“It’s important for publishers and others to make the case to education customers that internet-based products have value and are not simply freebies,” Grunwald said.

Quantum began developing its artificial-intelligence tutor four years ago after it, too, had determined that schools had a need for high-quality, supplemental tutorial services.

“This was an area where teachers and students were really calling out for help, but the education software market wasn’t giving it to them,” said Benny Johnson, president and chief executive of Quantum Simulations, who helped develop the software with his own former high school chemistry teacher.

What sets the Quantum Intelligent Tutor apart from other digital tutors, Johnson said, is that it allows students to type in whatever problems they need help with. “If this is something that’s supposed to help you with your homework, it’s not going to be any use if it doesn’t know what the homework is,” he said.

Most computerized tutors depend on a database of questions, so they are limited in the choice of problems they can help with, Johnson said: “They can’t do anything unless you’ve anticipated [the problem] and you’ve put it in the database.”

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